The Simple (Simon) Guide to Racing a Marathon – Part four: Psychology

The final post in this mini-series is all about the head.

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Race day can be stressful and whilst I think that a degree of nerves can be a good thing, I want to keep it under control. And control is what I focus on. Control the things you can and don’t worry about the rest.

Getting prepared

I make sure my race day kit is washed, checked and packed days before the race. I pack spares of everything. I write a list of things I will need on the day – tape, Vaseline, Bodyglide, plasters, pins, something to eat and drink in the hours before the race, etc. Getting all that stuff organised on the Thursday before a Sunday race means less stress closer to the time. I figure out how I will get to the race days before the big day.

In the days before the race I spend time visualising the race. This year I am racing the London marathon, which I know well, so that makes the visualisation even easier. I know what it will feel like to cross Tower Bridge just before half way – look left and see the Mornington Chasers cheering station on the far side of the road. Pass the half way mark and check my watch (more on that in a minute) then focus on the Isle of Dogs. After that Canary Wharf where the crowds are immense. On the way beck west, there will be the 20 mile mark, which is an important point for me (again, more on that in a minute). Then the fun really starts.

Highlights of the race

First the RunDemCrew cheering station at mile 21’ish – a wonderful, life affirming sight and a huge emotional boost. The RunDemCrew means a huge amount to me and my running and to see them there yelling and waving will be amazing.

Then the Mornington Chasers just after mile 22. This is my club and they are all runners who know what it means to be at that point in a race. There will be people there who have played big parts in helping me achieve what I have and I can’t wait to see them and hear the  shouts.

After that, it is a parade of wonderful sights and sounds – the Blackfriars underpass, which feels a bit like a re-birth when you emerge onto the Embankment. Seeing the Houses of Parliament. Turning into Birdcage walk… the turn onto the Mall and the finish line.

Race tactics

As far as tactics for the race are concerned, I like to control the things I can, such as my target pace, as much as possible. So here is what I am planning –

  • Reach the half way point in around 79 minutes – that is five minutes slower than I finished the Cambridge Half Marathon, in the freezing cold and snow in the middle of a heavy training period. That should feel manageable.
  • Keep that pace going for another seven miles.
  • Then at mile 20, have a stern word with myself and start to race the person in front. Slowly, slowly start to increase the pace. 10km is all I have to run at this point and I can afford to dial up the effort one click at a time, working on catching the person in front and then the next one and then the next one…
  • All the way to the finish: if my plan comes together and I manage to dial up the pace from 20 miles then I should manage a PB (currently 2:38:30) which will be a very pleasing result.

There are many ways to approach a marathon. But from a psychological point of view, I think that breaking the race down into manageable chunks – 13.1 miles slower than you know you can manage, another 7 at that pace and then 6 miles as fast as you can manage – makes the marathon feel less daunting. And I believe you should visualise the things that you are going to look forward to so that you enjoy the journey. After all, enjoyment is the reason we run, so the marathon should be the pinnacle of that enjoyment.

Final thoughts

I really think that running is woven into our DNA. I don’t care to debate whether we should wear shoes or not. Or whether we should run 100m or 100 miles. I just know that when I run, I feel fantastic. You only have to watch children do what they love doing, to know that running is one of the most natural things we do.

I have decided to pit myself against the classic distance of 26.2 miles and I hope that I can motivate others to do the same. If you are doing the same, I hope that the last few blog posts have been though provoking and/or useful. Most of all, I hope you have a great race and do yourself proud. And remember, keep it simple…

When more is definitely more

This week two things combined to make me think about the benefits of racing in a group, so I thought I’d write a quick post about that very thing.

My coach, Nick, often asks me to think about the best runs and/or races I have ever had as part of the process of visualisation that I think all serious runners should go through. I now have a little database of such events that I can think back on and they pretty much all have one thing in common – I was not alone!

Working with another runner

One in particular race, that I am very proud of, was the first time I broke 75 minutes for a half marathon. It was in the Birmingham half marathon in October 2010 and the race had near perfect conditions: cold and dry with very light breeze. I had had a hard, consistent training period up to the race and felt in great shape for the Florence marathon a few weeks later. And I was in a pen at the front of the field reserved for those with a quick time under their belt already.

The best bit about this race, however, was that after about three miles I was in a little group of three – a runner from Bourneville Harriers and another chap who didn’t wear a club vest. After running together in silence for a mile or so, the Bourneville Harrier mentioned that we were on sub-75 minute pace and asked whether me and the other chap with him were aiming for that target – we confirmed that we were. From that point on (I’d say about 5 miles into the race) we worked together taking turns at the front of our mini-peloton to push the pace along and give the trailing pair a break from any headwind we encountered. As we rounded the bend and saw the finish line the group broke apart as Mr. Bourneville drew away and I in turn dropped Mr. No Club. I had finished in 74:20 with no doubt in my mind that had it not been for the psychological and wind-breaking benefit of working with the other two runners, I would not have broken the 75 minute barrier.

Recent experiences

Then last weekend I was at another half marathon with a few club mates. One in particular, Mr. A, was intending to try to break the same 75 minute barrier, thereby earning a 3As Championship Start at the 2012 London marathon. The day was similarly cool and dry as it had been in Birmingham just over 12 months earlier. But this time there was a strong wind that would at times aid us and at other hinder us as we ran round a circular, and it must be said rather hilly course.

I watched Mr. A. pull away in the first few miles and before long I found myself alongside a runner from Ely Runners. Without any discussion we started working together taking turns on the front to give the other a rest from the really fairly strong wind. As I said the course was really quite hilly so there weren’t many opportunities early on to see far ahead, but after a while the course flattened out and suddenly I could see Mr. A ahead. All on his own. Ploughing into the headwind. Needless to say, Mr. Ely and I caught Mr. A. after a while by which time I think he had spent so much energy trying to maintain 5:40 min/mile that he was knackered and lost more and more time as the race went on.

Expert advice

Then last night while I was out on my run, I was listening to episode 97 of the Marathon Talk podcast when the hosts, Tom Williams and Martin Yelling started talking about racing tactics in their regular Training Talk feature (at around 46 minutes into the show). One of the things that they talked about was racing in a group and ‘tucking in’. They made the very good point that getting into a group does not exempt you of your responsibility to keep an eye on your pace and make sure that you do not slow down as the group slows down (which is common in the latter stages of most races) but they also talked passionately and with great experience about the benefits of working in a group, whether that is to break two and a half hours for the marathon or two hours for the half marathon.

My thoughts and tips

So this all prompted me to write a little about the benefits of working with other runners to achieve a goal. Here are a few tips;

  1. try to pick races where there will be people aiming for the same time as you – I recently compared two half marathons within a week of each other where the smaller of the two was won this year in 72:07, there were only 4 men under 75 minutes (and no-one at all between 73:20 and 76:23). In the larger half marathon, there were 11 runners who finished between 74:55 and 73:59, meaning that finding a group to run with to a sub-75 minute time would be much easier in the bigger race.
  2. make sure that you start your race in the right pen, thereby increasing the chances that you will find others with a similar target pace to yours.
  3. remember to keep an eye on the pace and if the group slows down don’t be afraid to push on, hopefully to another, faster group up ahead.
  4. communicate! Runners will often be happy to work together but it is worth saying a word or two so they know you’re prepared to work together (see point 5 below).
  5. as far as possible make sure you take a fair turn on the front. If you really can’t manage your turn at the front, especially towards the end of a race, let the others know so that they don’t think you are just taking a ride.
  6. if you have to choose between a group slightly faster or slightly slower than your target pace, pick the slightly faster group.
  7. watch where you spit…
  8. check with others about whether they want water as you approach an aid station to avoid crossing one another and potentially tripping someone up.
  9. if you have taken a ride for the last few miles of a race it is rather bad form to suddenly pop out and try to out-sprint the people who have dragged you along for the last half an hour.

I hope that helps and please, if you have thoughts on this or experiences to share please comment below… in a group if possible!